Each South African citizen should think of the simple things they could do to reach out across the racial divide in their everyday lives. One way of doing this is to learn another one of our country’s official languages.
This was the sentiment expressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his newsletter to the nation on Monday morning which centred on Reconciliation Day, which is on Wednesday, December 16.
Ramaphosa noted with emphasis that “most South Africans report they would like to interact more often with people from other race groups but cite language and confidence as the two greatest barriers.”
Reflecting on the apartheid era and how far South Africa has come as a nation, 26 years into democracy, Ramaphosa addressed dilemmas and social issues that have endured.
“It is often difficult to explain to the younger generation of South Africans, who were born to freedom, that apartheid was both brutal and extraordinarily petty,” he said.
“It is difficult to explain the lengths to which the regime would go to keep the races apart, from banning interracial relationships, to creating separate bus stops, entrances to buildings, public toilets, to even segregating beaches.”
“On Reconciliation Day each year, we reflect on how far we have come in advancing national reconciliation. It is important that we deal decisively with the obstacles to reconciliation, among them the high levels of inequality in our country and the persistence of racist attitudes and practices.”
However, the president added that it was also imperative that we acknowledge how “vastly different our country is today to what it was 26 years ago.”
“For every negative story of racism that makes the news, there are countless other positive stories of racial integration, communities living in harmony and social cohesion that do not generate headlines,” Ramaphosa said.
“We know that divisions of race and class remain very real in South Africa, but these stories do show that race relations in our country are not as toxic as we are often led to believe.”
While social and economic inequalities persist in the country, Ramaphosa said that to achieve “true reconciliation” the nation had to overcome these inequalities.
“It is only when the playing fields of opportunity are levelled and the lives of all South Africans improve that social cohesion will be strengthened,” he said.
“But we should at the same time not discount the important gestures in our everyday interactions that demonstrate our commitment to reconciliation between the races; and breaking language barriers is perhaps among the most important of them.”
“Reconciliation is a weighty concept, and there may be many who are unsure as to what they can actually do to advance racial reconciliation. We may feel reticent to take the first step or to reach out, for fear of being judged or even rejected.”
“By trying to learn the language of your friend, your colleague, your neighbour or the people you interact with daily in public places, you go beyond just demonstrating cross-cultural understanding. You open up the space for real communication.”
Ramaphosa concluded by referring to how the country’s concerted effort to curb the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus had illustrated that “we are at our best when we extend hands of solidarity and compassion to one another.”
“We need to find ways to reach beyond our social and professional circles, to appreciate other people’s points of view. Through sporting, cultural and religious activities, we can find ways to interact with fellow South Africans from a diversity of backgrounds,” he said.
“We should recognise that in addition to the fundamental changes we need to make in the structure of our economy and society, reconciliation can be built through our every-day activities.”
His newsletter comes ahead of his address to the nation this evening [Monday] when he is expected to relay developments related to South Africa’s Covid-19 response and announce new lockdown restrictions in the country as a way of curbing rising infection rates.
The address follows meetings with the National Coronavirus Command Council and provincial governments as the country battles with the impact of a second coronavirus wave.